Plate 5, South Burlingham Church, Norfolk

This is the eighth article in a series cataloguing John Sell Cotman’s first series of etchings, published in 1811. Here we turn to plate 5 and retreat into a backwater of deepest Norfolk.

John Sell Cotman
South Burlingham Church, Norfolk, 1810
Private collection
Photograph: Professor David Hill

This is an impression of a copper-plate etching of an upright architectural subject featuring a Romanesque portal closed with a wooden door partly bricked up at the bottom.

The plate was etched by Cotman and dated 29 August 1810 for his first series of ‘Etchings by John Sell Cotman’. This was issued to subscribers in parts, and the present subject was published as plate 5 (of 26 including title-page and frontispiece) of the completed set in 1811. The subject is one of five smaller plates etched for the series and one of the earliest of all Cotman’s efforts in the medium. In the published series it is predated only by The Manor House, York, (1 August), and in Cotman’s entire oeuvre only by two earlier etchings, both unpublished;  A Street Scene (June 1810) and A Cromer Boat  (8 August).  His technical inexperience is evident here in numerous patches of foul-biting, where the acid has bled into the spaces between lines, and in the extensive smutting and scratching of the plate.

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The church of St Edmund, South Burlingham is about ten miles east of Norwich, and is now quite obscure, having lost almost all of the settlement it once served. It is not known when Cotman might have visited the site, although we might surmise a date of 1809 or 1810.

Cotman’s descriptive index printed in the 1811 edition identifies the subject as ‘A Doorway on the North Side of South Burlingham Church’. This has subsequently been sealed up but the limestone carving survives, albeit evidently somewhat restored, and the aperture is now sealed with neat brickwork. Ground level is about the same as shown by Cotman. appears to be the only image of the subject available online.

A drawing of this subject attributed to Cotman was sold at Clarke and Simpson Auctions, Suffolk on 28 July 2021 as lot 453. From the reproduction online it is not quite possible to sense enough of the quality to take a view on the attribution. It is possible, however, to draw conclusions about the treatment of the subject. It does offer an accurate representation of the portal as seen from slightly to the left. The architectural details correspond exactly with those seen in the photograph, Note the two dimples in the stone at the bottom left. The correspondence proves that the observation was reversed in the etching, and that the details of the door itself were somewhat elaborated. The graffiti ‘AC’ is present in the drawing but nothing else. One detail of the drawing, however, that should be present in the etching is the keyhole to the right of the door.  That seems a surprising omission.

The attribution to Cotman is undermined, somewhat by the addition of his name ‘J.S.COTMAN’ in capital letters below. This seems much more like an attribution than a signature, and might suggest that the drawing is the work of a copyist, perhaps a pupil. However that may be, the drawing certainly appears to transmit Cotman’s original observation of the subject, although whether that is in his own hand awaits scholarly inspection and determination.

Quite what prompted Cotman to select the north portal as a subject is unknown but it would certainly appear that this is yet another instance of Cotman’s wilful obscurity. South Burlingham, as delightful as it might be (see Norfolk churches site) neither was nor is a major or highly prized subject, and even under those circumstances Cotman selected one of the least obvious of its features. It is probably symptomatic of its marginality that even Cotman forgot what it was called when inscribing the plates in his first edition.

Outside the church is picturesquely thatched, and boasts a doughty tower (since rebuilt). One enters through the fine Norman south portal and inside are fine medieval wall paintings, an ancient font and an ornate gothic pulpit. Quite what brought Cotman to this backwater is unknown, but over the years he became quite fond of it as a subject. His study of the north portal, however appears to be the earliest, although there are several later subjects:

One is of the church as a whole – known through a version recently (2014) with the London dealer Guy Peppiatt and a copy by a pupil dated 1827 at the Norwich Castle Museum ((NWHCM : 1922.87.2).

Image courtesy of Bonham’s

Another shows the Tower from the North in drawing sold at Bonham’s 24 October 2018 lot 247 copied by an amateur hand at Norwich Castle Museum (NWHCM : 1954.138.Todd15.Blofield.48) and by Elizabeth, Turner, later Lady Palgrave, in a drawing dated April 1813 when taking lessons from Cotman in her father’s house at Yarmouth (now in the Dawson Turner collection at the BM) and another copy by Ellen Turner d.1826 at the NCM  (NWHCM : 1931.26.12).

A third composition records the pulpit, known through a fine pencil drawing dated 1816 at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, USA (B1975.2.533) etched in 1817 by Cotman for his later series of Specimens of Norman and Gothic Architecture but not properly editioned until 1838.

In the light of these subjects, the choice of this portal seems all the more obtuse. In the published order of Cotman’s first series of etchings, however, it was the third such subject out of five [with The Manor House, York and Vale Crucis Abbey], and in the series as a whole portals provided half the total number. He had found his first such subjects in Wales in 1802 and Yorkshire in 1803 and was by the time of the etchings, beginning to realise their poetic potential.

Hundreds more were to follow in the course of his career. Most are thought of as minor works, even drudgery, but it is clear that they constitute a major poetic and meditative theme. Considered more abstractly, or even psychoanalytically, one might define the field as portals of passage in general, and it will then become plain that here is a motif of deep poetic resonance for the artist, verging on the archetypal. Wider consideration of this field is well beyond the scope of this article, but this strand of Cotman’s work deserves serious study, and the effort, I suspect, could yield rich results.

One reason for the particular neglect of the portals is that general format is unprepossessing. I suppose many artists have been engrossed even excited by their work only to find that the finishing touch renders it disappointing. Completion sometimes manages to evacuate everything that went into it. On this level Cotman’s portals are all the same, and the sense of repetition fights against their whole point of inviting entry and exploring their particularities.

If viewers could look past the clichee; if the eye could engage directly with his hieroglyphs, veining, scoring, swirling and laminae, then the strangeness of his art might be recognised. The door is a whirlpool of grain, but looking even more closely into the details, it is possible to make out that Cotman has transcribed a number of graffiti: There is ‘IAC/1670, WSO/ FC /Dalton’, with a crude profile at the top of the third panel, and a full-face to the right. Given the forethought required in etching to make the letters appear the correct way round, it seems clear that this was an important aspect of the composition.

The mark-making is simultaneously indicative, palimpsestic and accumulative. Each graphic element indicates consideration and assimilation. And so engagement builds element upon element across the piece. The accumulation of visual blocks in the image is equivalent to the accumulation of blocks in the construction of the portal. Cotman appears to have been particularly attracted to the Romanesque for the singularity of its elements, and the invention involved in their assembly. It is as if he recognised these portals as exemplary demonstrations of the creative imagination, and thus as points of entry into worlds within both actual and metaphoric.

Summary of known states:

First published state

As issued in volume form by Cotman 1811

Line etching, printed in brown/black ink on soft, heavyweight, off –white, wove paper, image approx. 194 x 132 mm on plate 215 x 147 mm on sheet (474 x 340 mm.

Inscribed on plate bottom left of subject ‘Norwich. Etched and Published by J.S. Cotman. Augst 29th 1810’; on plate bottom right of subject ‘South Birlingham Church’. The prints editioned for the collected 1811 edition of the etchings inscribed in graphite by the artist below the subject ‘So. Burlington [sic] Church/ Norfs’ as called for in the printed list of subjects. Erroneously titled on DH copy. It is not clear whether the mistake is common to every print, or whether this instance is an isolated slip. 

Examples in various collections, cf eg. British Museum 1868,0612.666-691

Second published state

As issued by H G Bohn, in ‘Specimens of Architectural Remains in various Counties in England, but especially in Norfolk. Etched by John Sell Cotman’, 1838, included in ‘Vol. 2, series IV, xiv’. Perhaps more richly inked and with an etched number VIII upper right, and with little or no perceptible wear from the 1811 impressions e.g. Norwich Castle Museum NWHCM : 1954.138.Todd15.Blofield.36


Popham, 1922, no.7.

2 thoughts on “Plate 5, South Burlingham Church, Norfolk

  1. Hi professor Hill,
    I hoped to reach out to you as my mother in law had a cottage in the area of high force and has something I hoped you might take a quick look at. It’s a painting of high force that I would love to send a picture of to you to see if you think it might be of any interest as I understand your leading expertise when it come to Turner.

    If this might be possible, please drop me an email and I will send the picture for a quick look.

    1. Hello Paul
      I fear that your message has inadvertently gone unanswered. You can by all means send me an image; I should be able to tel whether it’s something I might be able to help your with.
      All best wishes

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